Manchester United need to respond like Sir Alex Ferguson did vs FC Barcelona – Samuel Luckhurst
The Manchester United supporters chorused to ‘we’ve won it all’ in the Camp Nou gods but they are going to win nothing at all again this season. It is time to rein in the 1999 nostalgia and abandon the tenuous comparisons between two squads at different ends of the spectrum. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will always have Paris but, like his mentor, also has a Barcelona beating to stomach. Wednesday night is going to haunt Solskjaer for many months, maybe years.
Barcelona had United back on the passing carousel and they were dizzy amid the stooping stands of one of European football’s cathedrals. The defeat had some eerie parallels with the Rome final 10 years ago, be it United’s opening 10-minute supremacy to the advantage Barcelona were never going to lose. Only it got worse.
There was never going to be another escapologist act. This was more Camp Nou ’94 than ’99, United’s biggest losing margin over two legs in the Champions League format. Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team went some way to helping Sir Alex Ferguson eventually secure the ‘Holy Grail’ in the 1994 thrashing where Ferguson accused Paul Ince of bottling it. Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis went in the summer in what is still one of the most drastic squad revamps in United’s recent history. Solskjaer is going to have to be more ruthless with a squad whose sixth-place status is a wholly accurate reflection. Rip it up and start again.
Manchester United vs Barcelona reaction
Ferguson was on the pitch before kick-off and was filmed advising Solskjaer. Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs were also there and their presence heralded as though they would possess some of the players and secure another Catalan comeback. For 16 minutes, it seemed possible.
Solskjaer will lament Marcus Rashford’s casual second-minute poke onto the crossbar and Scott McTominay’s errant touch moments later in a gung-ho start that unsettled Barca. There was only so long United could keep Barca at bay with a defence that looked as tired as it was ramshackle. Luke Shaw’s suspension was decisive, for it was Ashley Young at left-back who gifted Lionel Messi the half-chance he made look like a tap-in. David de Gea then buckled and committed an error so egregious it had shades of his first season sorrows.
The United forwards were challenged to produce by their manager and failed. Messi reminded Rashford of the chasm not just between the teams but the individuals with his first, taken after Rashford had pinged the woodwork in the first minute and botched a shooting opportunity by slipping with the game still goalless. No wonder the United hierarchy covet ‘game-changers’ in the summer market. McTominay should not be exempt for carelessly letting the ball trickle under his studs when had the Scot controlled it he would have been in a duel with Marc-Andre ter Stegen. That was in the third minute.
These hard knocks need to be the making of United’s younger players, just like for the survivors in ’94. Solskjaer should be more appalled that Young, the eldest player out there, so amateurishly ceded the ball to Messi around 30 yards from goal, though. De Gea, scrutinised back in his homeland, choked and Barcelona were never going to. Barca cules bowed at the Madrid-born De Gea as he re-emerged and heckled him with chants of ‘De Gea, Selección’ – a reference to his low stock in Spain.
De Gea covets a Champions League triumph alas this is United’s fourth trophyless campaign in six since Ferguson headed upstairs. How dispiriting it must be for United supporters only four of the starters at Barcelona were signed in the post-Ferguson era. Solskjaer‘s team was underpinned by Ferguson buys and that lack of ruthlessness was costly.
Five years on from their last Champions League quarter-final second leg, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were starting again and with every week the rebuild becomes dearer. United do not have enough world-class players and the only players who could argue they are worthy of that status wilted.
United need to look forward now rather than imitating Liverpool’s yearning for the past. The Treble has brought out a sentimental streak in a club that used to goad Liverpool for living in the past and harking back to their 80s glories. United have become that club at a time where Liverpool are at the Premier League summit. United might not have a Champions League fixture to look forward to for close to 18 months.
A defence Ed Woodward refused to reinforce in the summer was already exposed by world-class forwards in Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe but United got away with it in Turin and Paris. The Video Assistant Review even intervened to overturn a penalty given against Fred for a phantom foul on Ivan Rakitic in Barcelona but Messi clarified Barca do not share the same bottle as Paris Saint-Germain.
Maybe Messi heard the ‘Viva Ronaldo’ chants that emerged in the wake of the naff Barcelona anthem as he waited in the tunnel. Young claimed an unwanted assist by committing four mistakes in as many seconds by pausing, miscontrolling, not clearing and not tackling. Messi intercepted, left Young in the dirt, Jones was dragged wide to open up the gap by Luis Suarez and Messi curled the ball around Smalling and beyond De Gea’s reach. If that was unsaveable the second had all the force of a back-pass that De Gea fumbled into his net. The tie was dead.
De Gea somehow clawed away Sergio Roberto’s sliding strike on the stroke of half-time but Philippe Coutinho added a deserved third in the 61st minute. Coutinho must have wondered whether the United defenders had ever watched him as he was allowed to move inside and curl into the top right-hand corner from 25 yards. Coutinho, whose name was capped up by Barca cheerleaders El Mundo Deportivo upon the line-up’s announcement, responded by sticking his fingers in his ears.
Not that it mattered, but Solskjaer instructed Diogo Dalot and Romelu Lukaku to warm up days after conceding United are not ‘a crossing team’. Alexis Sanchez almost claimed a consolation from a cross at his former home.
Ed Woodward was on the pitch with Ferguson and Avram Glazer was also in attendance. They are now going to have to show their commitment to ensuring United win nothing at all again.